I was casting around for a spot of diversion after a string of excellent but particularly dark novels when Nell Stevens’ Mrs Gaskell and Me arrived. I’d been eyeing it up for a little while, wondering if I’d enjoy it and now seemed the perfect time to find out. Stevens’ account of her doctoral research into Mrs Gaskell’s correspondence with a young man she met in Rome together with her own love story turned out to be very appealing, although perhaps not as light hearted as I’d expected.
Stevens had been struggling for a little while, trying to get a grip on her thesis, watching her fellow post-grad students, all displaying the classic signs of the PhD candidate – obsession with one’s subject, inability to talk about anyone’s else’s subject, a tendency to prickliness – but finding nothing of their passion in her own research. She’s constantly distracted by fantasies about Max, the friend she met on a creative writing course in Boston, with whom she’s fallen in apparently unrequited love. When he invites her to Paris, where he’s trying to write, she goes armed with a declaration that this can’t go on, that she adores him but can no longer see him platonically. After an awkward supper, things take a surprising turn back at Max’s apartment. Not long after, the focus of Stevens’ research becomes clear to her. Anticipating opprobrium on the publication of her biography of her dear friend Charlotte Brontë, Mrs Gaskell took herself off to Rome where she immersed herself in the English-speaking artistic community, meeting the likes of Elizabeth and Robert Barrett Browning and making the acquaintance of Charles Eliot Newton with whom she formed a deep connection. It’s this that Stevens decides to research, based on their correspondence.
Unlike Mrs Gaskell, who informed her publisher that she wanted to libel those she felt had let Brontë down, Stevens makes no bones about her book being a ‘work of imagination’, weaving imagined episodes in Rome through her own story and addressing some sections directly to Mrs Gaskell herself. I may well not have picked this book up without the Gaskell hook but I found myself rushing through these sections eager to get on and find out what was happening between Stevens and Max. There’s plenty of heartbreak here, despite the light tone, but there’s also a good deal of humour to enjoy particularly if you’ve had anything to do with academic life. I see from her biographical notes that Stevens teaches creative writing and I suspect she’s much more comfortable with that than in a literature department. I raced through her book, rooting for her all the way. Happy endings often make for dull fiction but give me a real life one any day. I hope Stevens has found hers.
My Salinger Year is Joanna Rakoff’s account of her first job after completing her post-grad studies in London, a year spent working for J. D. Salinger’s literary agent. It’s 1996 and on her first day she wonders where her computer is only to be presented with an electric typewriter then put to work typing up the backlog of contracts and letters all held on a pedal-operated Dictaphone. This is an office where photocopiers are regarded as the coming thing. In her first week she’s called into her boss’s office and given the Jerry rules – never reveal Salinger’s personal details, never pass on any letters – and a pile of unanswered fan letters complete with a form response. The problem is that when she comes to read them she’s unable to harden her heart to the World War Two veterans who identify with Salinger, to the teenagers who identify with Holden Caulfield convinced that Salinger has been channelling them, to the mother who wants to name the library she’s setting up in memory of her daughter after a Salinger short story. She writes her own replies.
Rakoff is an immensely likeable and entertaining guide to the inner workings of the Agency, as it’s referred to throughout, which seems to have not one but both feet firmly planted back in the mid-twentieth century. At one point her boss daringly considers buying a computer but only if they’re available in black. Max and Lucy try their best to breathe fresh air into the Agency, taking on young, edgier clients but Rakoff’s boss reigns supreme, refusing to take part in auctions and removing any reference to ‘electronic books’ from contracts. The Agency is all agog when Salinger himself strikes a deal with a tiny publisher to publish a short story originally run by the New Yorker, in book form. It’s a fraught enterprise and Rakoff finds herself fielding phone calls from the publisher attempting to soothe his shredded nerves. Loud calls with the man himself are conducted behind closed doors in her boss’s office and some times with Rakoff herself. She becomes quite matey with him, confessing her own literary aspirations. Running through her account is Rakoff’s personal life: her college boyfriend in California who she loves but cannot be with; her New York boyfriend, older, self-obsessed and neglectful; her hopes for her own writing career and the horrible realisation that she will somehow have to make ends meet on the Agency’s pittance and pay off the credit card bill that she’d assumed her parents were footing. By the end of it, you can’t help but root for her, desperately hoping that she’ll ditch Don, rescue the close friendship that seems to be drifting away from her, reunite with her college boyfriend and make her own mark on the literary world. In the final section of the book, Rakoff ties up the loose ends of her Salinger year then brings us pleasingly up to date with her life.
I would have been amazed if I hadn’t loved this book entrenched as it is in the book world and I wasn’t disappointed: it’s a delight from start to finish, an endearingly affectionate portrait of a particular corner of the trade being dragged, quietly protesting, towards the twenty-first century. It’s tone reminded me of Julie and Julia – Julie Powell’s account of a year spent learning to cook like Julia Child – and at times it screams ‘film me’. If this has whetted your appetite for another insider’s view and you haven’t come across Diana Athill’s Stet already, you’re in for a treat. Beautifully expressed, it isn’t as exuberant as My Salinger Year but it’s a fascinating insight into life as an editor in a publishing house. I thoroughly enjoyed both.
Readers in their 40s or 50s are likely to find themselves smiling, or perhaps grimacing, wryly in recognition within the first few paragraphs of Ben Watt’s poignant memoir of his parents. There’s a point at which roles are reversed and you find yourself worrying about your parents, whether they’re eating enough, drinking too much, living in suitable accommodation. We all tend see our parents as just that, people who only exist in relation to ourselves – in Romany and Tom Watt tries to reconstruct his parents as they once were, attempting to understand them as people in their own right with their own stories to tell.
Romany and Tom Watt’s marriage was the second for both of them. Romany had four children by her theatre critic husband when she met Tom with whom she had a passionate affair. They married in 1962 just a month or so before Watt was born. He remembers growing up with his mother working as a successful freelance writer while his father picked up painting and decorating work, his career as a jazz bandleader petering out. As Tom’s music work dried up the relationship turned fractious with more and more evenings spent seeking out the company of others, first at the pub overlooking Barnes village pond then in Oxford when they moved house. By 2001, the couple’s health was in decline. Watt moved them to a flat close to his own home in London hoping for a new start for all of them. After Romany was hospitalised for surgery, Tom moved to a care home where she joined him in that all too familiar slide into ill-health, isolation and withdrawal from the world.
If you were listening to music in the ’80s you may remember Ben Watt’s name from Everything but the Girl. I was a fan so when Watt published a book in the late ‘90s I was keen to read it. Patient is a fascinating, eloquently expressed account of his experience of a rare debilitating illness which took him to the brink of death. What lifts Romany and Tom above the run-of-the-mill family memoir is both that eloquence and the complexity of its subjects’ relationship – these are two people who have passionately loved each other, a love which became buried under layers of resentment, depression and booze as one career rose and the other plummeted. Theirs is a family of entertainers: Romany is the daughter of a Methodist minister who stole her name when his career took a surprising turn into radio where he became a precursor of David Attenborough: she was a fledgeling Shakespearean actor before having children then turned her hand to freelance writing interviewing the likes of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor; Tom or ‘Tommy’ Watt was a successful jazz musician playing with the greats until musical tastes changed and he failed to change with them, even turning down an offer from Parlophone to back The Beatles. The book is full of anecdotes, some of them funny, some of them sad. It’s unflinchingly honest – Watt’s descriptions of his own depression and breakdown are particularly raw – and at times perhaps uncomfortably so – the extracts from Romany’s written memories about her relationship with Tom made me feel a little queasily voyeuristic – but Watt’s talent is in making the intensely personal universal. All of our stories are different and yet we will all come to this in the end.